Let’s talk about Christopher Nolan.
For the past 20 years, he has been on an unmatched run of success with both audiences and critics. Seriously, just take a look at his filmography. Since his breakout film, MEMENTO, which earned him his first of five Academy Award nominations in 2001, he has delivered hit after hit. Not only have all ten of his directorial efforts been certified fresh by Rotten tomatoes, but they have a combined worldwide box office of over $6B.
Ticket sales aside, many of his films have entered the cultural canon. MEMENTO is required viewing in many film schools across the country, his DARK KNIGHT trilogy not only gave us Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as The Joker but, for many, it stands as the standard bearer for what a comic-book series should aspire to. The curly-cue logic of INCEPTION, a Best Picture nominee, still has people scratching their heads…in a good way. He scored another Best Picture nomination and his first Best Director nod for his take on DUNKIRK, and even his lesser talked about films, THE PRESTIGE, and INSOMNIA, stand out as fan favorites.
Despite the accolades and his place in the filmmaker firmament, the tracking for his upcoming summer release, OPPENHEIMER, has been muted. And it’s not for lack of trying. Universal has been especially aggressive in rolling out a teaser campaign. The studio released a trailer last July, exactly a year before its release. That was followed up by another trailer in December and a few rather abstract posters. Spots have aired during the NFL playoffs and in theaters, yet awareness and interest in the film have flatlined.
So what’s the problem? First, it’s worth noting that this is Nolan’s first release with Universal after spending his entire post-MEMENTO career at Warner Bros. Perhaps Universal doesn’t have the marketing of a Nolan film down to the exact science as Warner Bros. Or, it could be that the campaign to date has been too abstract.
We love a good teaser campaign, but it could be argued that these posters are too much of a tease, especially if you’re unfamiliar with J. Robert Oppenheimer. These posters can be confusing for those who don’t know Oppenheimer’s place in history. And the trailers that have been released rely more on mood than the actual plot. It has been a campaign of form over function. They are beautiful spots that don’t reveal much, nor do they invite further investigation.
Ok, so what kind of numbers should we expect for OPPENHEIMER? As always, we start with the box office universe. In this case, we’re looking at July releases from 2013 to 2022 that aren’t comedies, animated, sequels, or from the Marvel or DC universes. That leaves us with the following films. Interestingly, Nolan’s DUNKIRK tops the list at $50M. The average opening is $25.9M, and the median is $21.8M.
Given that this is another Nolan film, Universal is probably eyeing an opening towards the high end of this box office universe. Can it get there?
Let’s start by looking at awareness. We mentioned above that the tracking numbers haven’t moved despite the presence of trailers and artwork. You can see that below.
We began tracking OPPENHEIMER in August when the first trailer was released (vertical grey bar). Back then, awareness was at 15%. Today, six months later, awareness has only climbed two points.
For added context, we’re comparing OPPENHEIMER to NOPE, which ranks 2nd in the box office universe above with a $44M opening. When we compare the two, a few things jump out. First, we started tracking OPPENHEIMER (dark yellow) much earlier than NOPE (light yellow) because the OPPENHEIMER campaign started so early.
The other thing that jumps out is that awareness for OPPENHEIMER is only two points lower than NOPE at the same distance from release. So perhaps the situation isn’t so dire. The big difference is that the score for OPPENHEIMER includes two trailers. NOPE had higher awareness without the help of trailers or posters.
It’s a similar story when we look at interest. The interest score for the film has hovered in the 5.1 to 5.2 range for the past six months.
When we compare the film to NOPE, a few stories emerge. First, NOPE came on to tracking with a score of 4.8, though it quickly rose to 5.2 after the first trailer dropped before climbing to 6.1 by the time the film opened. Interest in OPPENHEIMER is in line with NOPE’s post-trailer release.
All in all, the tracking data paints a picture of a film that still has a shot at matching or exceeding the opening number for NOPE. But it also paints a picture of a campaign that has yet to resonate with audiences. To reiterate, what we’ve seen so far has only been the teaser campaign. There is no doubt that Universal will give this film a full-court press. It’s just that if the teaser campaign had lifted these numbers, OPPENHEIMER would have less ground to cover going forward.